Keeping seafarers sane

Keeping seafarers sane

By Michael Grey

“Seafarers required – preference will be given to stolid, pragmatic anti-social candidates who can demonstrate a lack of imagination”. That’s not serious, of course, but it might seem not too outrageous, as the life of the modern seafarer develops increasingly joyless characteristics.

Why, for instance, has suicide become the most prevalent cause of onboard deaths? Why did the incidence triple over the past two years? There is something going wrong, somewhere, about the life seafarers are expected to live.

While shipowners and operators studiously avoid the subject as it will clearly affect recruitment efforts, as the industry tries to stave off expected shortages, others are clearly voicing their concerns in public about the mental health of seafarers. The welfare organisations, as one might expect, acknowledge that this is an issue that really does need to be confronted. And the Shipowners’ P&I Club, in conjunction with ISWAN, have identified the maintenance of mental wellbeing as a matter that is important. There are insurance claims that have to be paid when ships are delayed and repatriations required after crew members have suffered mental breakdowns.

There are important academic studies under way into seafarers’ mental health. The Seafarers International Research Centre at Cardiff University has begun a major, two-year study funded by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health into this very subject, designed to examine the factors which contribute to the mental health and wellbeing of this group of workers. The Australian organisation Seafarers Mental Health has published helpful booklets which it distributes to ships in port, with sensible strategies.

You can publish advice in all the languages under the sun, warning about how the signs of mental illness can be recognised by shipmates, but to do something practical about its prevention suggests that a closer look at life at sea today is long overdue. The modern shipboard society of ever-smaller numbers of crew members, drawn from different cultures and speaking different first languages, is said by people (call them cynics or realists) as “what is on offer – take it or leave it!”

It has been said that the social isolation of the seafarer needs to be addressed by better connectivity, with affordable communication technology enabling people at sea to more easily communicate with their loved ones and live a more “normal” life. But other, perhaps more realistic folk, have pointed out that the ability to communicate easily may bring with it its own problems, such as bringing the crises at home onto the plate of the person at sea, who might be unable to do anything practical to help and will feel ever more helpless and stressed, as a result.

The lack of communication between people on board ships, with insufficient people aboard to provide even a small cohesive society has been identified by people who have gone to sea primarily to observe what happens afloat. Two authors – Rose George and Horatio Clare, who wrote separate books about their voyages aboard Maersk containerships, commented on this self-contained, self-imposed isolation of the off-watch seafarers; spending their time behind the closed doors of their cabins, locked into their “devices”. Mealtimes, they noted, were spent mostly in silence, the shortest possible time being occupied in eating. Those who experienced sea time in more generously manned days, when there was a working shipboard society and friendships established, look on modern seafaring as a demonstrable deterioration of working life.

Loneliness is clearly a major factor in the deterioration of mental health, but what can be done to prevent it, rather than to try and pick up the pieces after a breakdown is an important question. You can scarcely force people to socialise, especially when the working language of the ship is not their own. It could be argued that the manning is so lean and everyone so busy that there is no room, or space, for a more pleasant life.

But this is the counsel of defeat. There is “best practice” out there. There are companies which try and promote a better shipboard environment and which try and maintain a “one nation” manning arrangement. Arguably, it will be these which recruit and retain the best seafarers, which will be their reward. You do not, as the note under the glass of old chart tables used to note “have to be mad to work here”.